Alta Ski Area, Utah
Alta sits at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in a high-Alpine basin where the ski experience is much like it was in 1938. That year, Alta opened with one rickety chairlift—which actually didn’t carry any skiers until January 15, 1939—and one not-quite-finished lodge to house overnight guests. A few modern conveniences have found their way into the basin since then—such as three high-speed chairlifts and free wireless Internet access at most lodges. But the gestalt of the place has remained the same.
The fact that Alta calls itself a ski area, not a resort, is telling. Here, it’s all about the skiing—and only skiing; snowboarding is still prohibited. Rates at the five lodges include breakfast and dinner because Alta guests are here to eat, sleep and ski, and not necessarily in that order. There are no trendy nightclubs, shops or restaurants in Alta, although the dining in the lodges is excellent—tasty and hearty. Skiers save their energy for the slopes. The Rustler Lodge even has stools in front of its bathroom sinks, lest a skier be too weary to brush his or her teeth.
For many, Alta is love at first sight and the ski area attracts an enormous repeat following. The lodges report that 70 to 80 percent of their guests return. And it’s not just the old-fashioned ambiance that’s the lure. The basin is blanketed on average with over 40 feet of dry Wasatch powder each year. Skiing in this much light, fluffy snow is not only intoxicating, it’s addictive. The steep headwalls spill onto rolling alpine meadows that cascade to the canyon floor. This mixture of terrain keeps it interesting. If the powder is tracked in the Ballroom, there are hundreds of acres of hidden nooks and crannies—like the trees off the Wildcat lift—to explore.
But Alta’s reputation for steep-and-deep belies its gentler side. The ski area is as much gently rolling alpine meadow with wide groomed swaths as it is heart-stopping headwall with waist-deep snow. It has some of the best beginner terrain in Utah and its children’s programs are also excellent. Only 11 of 116 total named trails are rated for beginners, but they are long rolling slopes that drop over 800 vertical feet—far longer than the average learning piste. It’s also a beginner’s paradise.
A great option for anyone staying here for at least a week: Purchase an AltaSnowbird ticket and enjoy the two resorts’ combined terrain (snowboarders must either don telemark or Alpine skis or stick to Snowbird, since snowboarding is not allowed at Alta). To reach Snowbird, look for the gate in the saddle off Alta’s Sugarloaf chairlift. A gatekeeper won’t let anyone pass who doesn’t have a combined ticket. Drop down the beginner and intermediate trails of Mineral Basin, then either return to the saddle via the Baldy Express chairlift, or take the Mineral Basin quad to Snowbird’s Hidden Peak. Advice? Just do it. It’s a hoot, even for those intermediates who might think it’s too extreme, but watch out for the bumps.. A free ski bus also connects the two resorts via the road if you get the squirlies.
One other thing: It’s pronounced AL-ta, like the name Al, not AHL-ta. Pronounce it correctly, and Alta regulars might just show you their favorite lines.
Photos courtesy Alta Ski Area